Monkeys and a Castle in Nagano Prefecture
I’m loving working at a British international school, in part because the yearly calendar is very reminiscent of the ones I grew up with (the new school year begins in late August and ends in June, instead of April to March as in Japanese schools). In mid-March, we had our Spring Break (something I had forgotten about but deeply appreciated, both then and now) a week before Japanese students ended their academic year.
So I took this opportunity to travel somewhere that would’ve otherwise been crowded — Nagano, to see the famous snow monkeys!
There have been countless nature documentaries broadcast around the world about these onsen-loving Japanese macaques. They are one of the main tourist draws to Nagano Prefecture (second only to the ski resorts), and it showed in both the amount of information available (in English!) while I was planning this trip, and in the number of helpful signs and people while I was there.
Seeing the snow monkeys has been on my bucket list for years now, so I planned this short 3D2N trip to fulfill a handful of specific targets, rather than meander slowly through the prefecture.
(The information I’m listing here is accurate as of Winter 2015, but things may be different if you travel to see them during other times.)
Getting to Nagano
Getting to Nagano took up most of the first day. I opted out of the Shinkansen, because it required several transfers from Kobe to Nagano. I was also reluctant to pay that much money for something that makes me a little ill whenever I ride it. Instead, I booked tickets through the Alpico highway bus company, which got me from Hankyu Umeda Station in Osaka directly to Nagano City’s JR station.
Funny story: the bus driver told us in Osaka that there had been reports of heavy snow en-route to Nagano, and if it became a safety hazard, we would be taken to Nagoya instead (so we could take the Shinkansen up the rest of the way). At the time, I wondered if he was being overly-cautious, but after 2 hours into our journey we drove right into the storm and I was momentarily transported back to Canada.
Luckily, we passed through without mishap, and the mountains sheltered us from the worst of it once we got to the other side (via a series of incredibly-long tunnels). The scenery along the way was breath-taking too!
All in all, the bus ride took roughly 6 hours before reaching Nagano City. I had decided to stay at 1166 Backpackers (hostel) for my two nights in the city — I do recommend booking with them if you’re travelling solo or in a small group. They were so friendly, and they’re located close to the tourist area around Zenkoji (but more about that below).
Snow Monkey Park
The next morning, I headed back out to the station to catch the bus that would take me close to the Monkey Park. The proper name is “Jigokudani Yaen-Koen (地獄谷野猿公苑)“, but if you say in English “Snow Monkey Park”, most locals will understand what you mean. There is a wealth of information available on the web, so I will only mention some of the things I had to figure out for myself:
- It seems the usual way to travel to the park is a combination of taking the train from Nagano to Yudanaka, and then transferring to a bus that gets you as far as Kanbayashi Onsen. From there you would walk the rest of the way. HOWEVER, the people at the hostel kindly informed me that there is also a direct bus available from Nagano Station to an area about 15-minutes-walk away from the park entrance!
- To ride this bus, I had to first buy a “Snow Monkey Pass” (about ¥2900) from the Dentetsu side of Nagano Station (pictures above). The pass is for the whole day (unlimited rides) and also includes the admission fee into the monkey park (normally ¥500/person).
- The bus departs from Terminal #3 on the east side of Nagano Station. (If you miss it, it’s a 1 and 1/2 hour wait for the next one!)
- The bus will take you through rural Nagano, until you reach the “Kanbayashi Onsen-guchi” bus stop. I say bus stop, but there is only a gas station for a landmark…
- Heading away from the gas station, there was an uphill slope that curved around. I followed it up until I reached a fork in the road, and then I made a right turn (if in doubt, head for higher ground).
- There are actually three bus stops in the area that all have the same name (“Onsen-guchi”). I came from Stop #C, which is furthest from the entrance, but it directly connects from Nagano.
- To return back to Nagano, there is a small hut on the opposite side of the road near the gas station. Double check the timetable on the wall (it’s in Japanese, so it’s worth memorizing the kanji for Nagano), but from memory, the buses only came once an hour.
As you can probably tell from the pictures, the road was covered in snow and ice (no sidewalks), so I recommend wearing shoes with a bit of grip for safety. They will really come in handy later on!
At the end of the second road I turned into, I came to a narrow hut and a flight of steps marked with a banner. This was the edge of the national park, and from that point on it was nothing but trees, fluffy snow, and the winding narrow path…
Most of the people visiting at the time were either in pairs or small groups. At some point along the way though everyone’s individual pace scattered the larger groups, so it wasn’t difficult to pass by someone who was walking slower.
However, a word of warning about the path. It’s not flat, and there are no barriers. This meant that there were lumps of ice everywhere, slush and mud everywhere else. Even with regular city boots, there were sections of the path where I had to shuffle along granny-style or risk falling down/over the edge. If you’re out of practice with walking on ice, hiking boots or similar might be a good idea.
After what felt like a very long time, I came upon an “encouraging” sign, and shortly after I left the forest. The path continued past a small visitor’s centre (which is a really good place to warm up after seeing the monkeys) and a small local onsen before I reached the river.
A series of stairs beside the river led me up a hill and along a bridge to a small waterfall. Next to it was the monkeys’ onsen!
The monkeys are wild, though they are also incredibly comfortable ignoring the humans and their cameras. True to their curious nature, some of the younger ones kept snatching at bright keychains or dangling key charms because they thought it was food (note: feeding them or staring directly into their eyes is taboo, for obvious reasons).
I stayed there for about 30 minutes, taking between 100-150 photos, but one of the monkeys stood out to me. After looking at them for so long, every monkey’s face strongly resembled human ones, but this one almost looked like someone I’ve seen before (or maybe it’s just very similar to a typical Japanese oji-san face?). Either way, he was my favourite!
Finally, it was getting a bit too chilly for me, so reluctantly I left along the same road I came by. Though the entire trip took over half a day, it was completely worth the trek here!
I made it back to Nagano City around 3 PM, and for a lack of things to do (I had really only planned to see the monkeys) I wandered up to Zenko-ji.
I made the mistake of not brushing up on my history before visiting here. Otherwise, I probably would’ve been in more awe of one of the most important Buddhist temples in the region. At the very least I would’ve been impressed with its involvement with Uesugi Kenshin during the Sengoku period…
As I arrived near the end of the day (all temples close at 4 PM, it seems) there were not many tourists. The evening prayers were in session as well, so no pictures of the spacious but dimly-lit interior. I didn’t know there was an underground passage either, so I left after listening to a bit of the monks’ chanting.
Moral of the story: Do your research before going into a temple or a shrine…
Matsumoto Castle (松本城)
On my last day of the trip, I detoured out of Nagano City to the nearby Matsumoto City in the middle of the prefecture. Taking the local train between the two cities was a good decision; the ride was longer, but the breath-taking scenery more than made up for it!
While Nagano City developed from a temple town (centered around Zenko-ji), Matsumoto was a castle town. Its castle, Matsumoto Castle, is Japan’s oldest and a designated national treasure! Naturally, it was on my bucket list to see!
Originally built in the Sengoku period by the Norimasa family, the castle was known as Karasu-jo (Crow Castle) for its unique and elegant black exterior. Though the outer castle was dismantled during the Meiji Revolution, the main keep, two gates, and the moat are still preserved.
The most amazing part is that the wooden interiors and the external stonework are completely original — it was incredible to walk along the 400-year-old halls and climb the (scarily) steep staircases that real samurais used to move through!
There were several castle attendants throughout the many floors, to help direct visitors and protect the interiors from vandalism. The were generally older and slightly grumpy, but I’m confidant the one stationed at the 4th floor stairs got the most chances to laugh — I was not the only visitor clinging to the railings for dear life while descending in my socks…
The castle was easy to get to (about 20-minutes walk from the station), but there’s also a very convenient sightseeing city loop bus. The neighbourhood around the castle is paved with cobblestones and it’s very charming to wander through. All-in-all, a nice place to day-trip from either Nagano or Tokyo, and the castle is worth every effort to get to Matsumoto (I’m very glad I went!).
Food in Nagano
Being a landlocked prefecture, Nagano isn’t particularly known for its seafood dishes. However, it is very famous for its soba (helped by the pure mountain waters), and large dumplings called oyaki.
The newly-renovated JR Nagano station has a shopping centre attached to it, called Midori. On the first and basement levels there are many food shops, and omiyage (souvenir) shops. Several of them sell oyaki, so that’s the most convenient way to try some of these dumplings. To my taste, it resembled a meat bun (which were never my favourite in dim-sum, except for the char-siu one), and it was just as filling. The shop staff will always ask if you want it warmed up when you buy some — if you’re eating it right away, say “yes”!
In Matsumoto, I had heard about a reputable soba restaurant, that also offered horse sashimi. I was curious, so I stopped by the flagship store of Kobayashi for lunch after my castle visit.
The soba was quite good, and it was fun grating my own wasabi for the dipping sauce. As for the sashimi, it was an interesting experience. It didn’t taste like anything I’ve tried before, but if I had to compare, I would say it’s the closest to beef. I got the feeling that, rather than served raw, horse meat would taste excellent if properly grilled. It was passable though, if eaten with the ginger and dipped in ponzu sauce…
As mentioned at the beginning, I went to Nagano in mid-March, but I’ve only uploaded this now because I’ve been taking a break from blogging. I had entertained thoughts about giving up on this platform, but during the past half-year I haven’t stopped travelling, and I still dislike the way Facebook renders HQ photos….so, I’ll be posting here once again. On the backlog are posts about Singapore, Himeji Castle, Tokyo & Kanazawa, an upcoming trip to Lake Biwa & Uji, and a really long summary post of Osaka (and all the bucket list items I’ve checked off there).
Until next time!